igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
Deleted scenes from the 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom:

(Christine with the Daroga, Raoul at Perros-Guirrec, Raoul with Mama Valerius)
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)

I had the inspiration a while ago that Lars Hanson would have been the ideal casting for Leroux-Raoul in the silent era: he can play fair, delicate and conflicted, but also hot-headed and impulsive.

So I was amused to come across a couple of stills from the Mauritz Stiller "Erotikon" (1920)-- a film which apparently deals with Eros rather than erotica -- which, when taken out of context, could easily appear as shots from a 1920s "Phantom of the Opera" movie with an authentically Swedish Christine!

Raoul is carried away by Christine's singing as she accompanies herself at the piano (Preben Wells and Irene in "Erotikon")

Raoul and Philippe quarrel over the girl (Preben warns Professor Leo in "Erotikon")

Edit (for my records) — a nineteenth-century Raoul: http://fdelopera.tumblr.com/post/89510605313/rewrittengirl-phantoonsoftheopera

igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
This is a fascinating remake of a classic early French 'serial drama', of the type that doled out their revelations in lurid weekly thriller instalments. I haven't seen the original Judex, but I've seen Ultus, the equivalent British serial of the era... and I definitely recognise the style here. Multiple disguises, hairbreadth escapes from death, jawdropping coincidences, gadgetry and sleight of hand... and villains who never kill their victims when they ought to!

The print in the BFI National Archive was in beautiful condition (save for some oversized and rather intrusive subtitling), and this film is visually and musically stunning; the Maurice Jarre soundtrack is lovely, fitting and eerie. The morality of the story -- despite its simplistic chase format -- is surprisingly grey, with Jacqueline the only pure innocent (and thus, alas, the least interesting character). It's hard not to sympathise with Favraux in his situation, despite everything that we learn, or with young Morales, caught between the ruthless woman he loves and his long-lost father, and Judex himself finds his self-appointed mission of punishment harder and harder to fulfil.

Scenes like the masked ball (shrouded in almost surreal mystery, since it is not until afterwards that we have any idea what was going on!) and the spider-like climb of Judex' minions to the roof are very memorable, while the film also has a nice line in self-deflating humour, courtesy of the fiction-obsessed detective Cocantin and his rapport with small children. For such a preposterous comic-strip confection the plot holds together quite well, although having displayed such crowning ineptitude in their first attempt to kill Jacqueline (and what happened to the original idea of questioning her first?), it's hard to understand why the plotters don't just make away with her immediately the next time they get the opportunity!

The one thing that really grated, as with all old historical dramas, was the very 'modern' hairstyles and make-up used on all the eye-candy characters in order to make them attractive to a contemporary 1960s audience -- the result now, of course, is that instead of appearing subconsciously appealing they appear distractingly out of period. It's hard to credit a swooning damsel of 1916 when she is made up to look more like Brigitte Bardot...

Casting a professional magician as Judex enables the character to perform some impressive sleight-of-hand, and there are some subtle references to the original era, like the opening iris shot, the super-advanced (and supersized) antique surveillance gadgetry, and the title cards setting the various scenes. But perhaps the most impressive thing is that this is basically played entirely 'straight': it's not a tongue-in-cheek homage to pulp serials, it's presented in its own right as a piece of poetry for us to suspend disbelief -- a 1914 adventure of a mysterious caped avenger, an athletic, resourceful villainess, and a celestial innocent who sought to redeem her father's deeds.
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
Nice to see the "Shamrock" getting a starring role, but can't someone please tell the BBC voiceover artist that it's "Morwell-HAM", not — as it might appear — "Morwell'em"? They really have no excuse, as every single local who appears in the programme pronounces the name of the place correctly onscreen..

(We used to go there when I was a child; I know it well.)

'Way of the Strong' review finally done: not one of my best attempts I feel, as it spends far too much time retelling the story — something I dislike in others' efforts — but it is at least done with, and makes some of the points I wanted so badly to bring out.

It is a little too obvious with which character I identify, of course!
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
I had a brilliant idea today.

I was getting so desperate about the amount of backlogged research typing-up/indexing that I now have to do that I was actually considering paying someone to sit down and do it for me.

Then it occurred to me: why don't I pay myself? Buy myself something I like, every time I actually get a batch done? :-) That way I get to benefit from the money as well as from the work...

Of course, I haven't actually done any yet. But I do feel a whole lot better about it!

Next task: I really must get round to writing up a review for The Way of the Strong - not least because I can't forget it (or even stop fan-ficcing it!), but partly because F.Gwynplaine MacIntyre seems to have been at his wicked ways with it... I wonder what the odds are that he never actually saw the film? The fact that he calls the villain "Tiger Louie" (the original name of record) rather than "Denver Louie", the name on the actual restored print, is suggestive — but possibly it was only changed in the course of the recent restoration work, which post-dates F.Gwynplaine's IMDb review.

(Isn't 'Handsome' Williams wonderfully ugly, poor man? I had a look around for some photos of the actor out of character (Masquers' Club, Silent Ladies & Gents) and while easily recognisable, it's clear that Mitchell Lewis was nothing like as ugly in real life as the unfortunate Handsome — he doesn't have a broken nose, for a start — so that's another unreliable assertion from the well-known Mr MacIntyre.)

Other dubious statements (N.B. spoilers!):

  • I'm probably far too innocent to spot such things, but I didn't get any impression that Handsome has sexual designs on Nora — beyond the fact that he is obviously falling in love with her. That certainly doesn't appear to be his initial motivation. Louie's intentions, on the other hand, are quite unmistakeable...
  • Handsome doesn't have a mansion or a bootlegging empire — Louie does. (As so often in the past, I strongly suspect that F.Gwynplaine is extrapolating from stills and getting it wrong.) Handsome has what is probably a speakeasy, which he stocks with liquor stolen from bootleggers, and apparently lives in a couple of rooms 'above the shop', with a getaway staircase into the street. It's a comfortable and well-furnished existence, but the mansion seen in the film is in fact the hideout for Louie's gang and nothing to do with Handsome.
  • Williams (probably) doesn't end up drowning. He shoots himself at the wheel of his car, in the belief that he is so ugly that even a blind girl cannot love him; the car proceeds erratically and finally takes the traditional plunge over the edge of a cliff, in this case into a river. Handsome is quite probably already dead by this point — but I'll bet that our phantom reviewer saw a still of the scene where the bubbles are rising from the sunken car, and assumes that this was the intended method of the driver's self-destruction...
  • The statement that the final shot resembles "The Phantom of the Opera" puzzles me (I believe it's the bubbles rising as mentioned above), but I don't recall the "Phantom" accurately enough to state for certain that it doesn't end on a shot of the Phantom's coach in the river. The fates of the drivers, of course, are rather dissimilar.
  • Williams and his henchmen do not defend their mansion with elaborate machine-guns mounted on the staircases, so the audience can scarcely have laughed at them. There is, however, a scene in which Louie (minus his henchmen) drags out from an upstairs room the machine-gun and shield he was seen using in a drive-by shooting earlier in the film, and starts shooting down the stairs: no-one laughed at this in the screening I saw, but if we give Mr MacIntyre the benefit of the doubt it is possible that, in addition to confusing the ownership of the mansion, he also made a slip of the pen in naming the gunner in question. Frankly I think that he saw a still of this scene and guessed falsely at the identity of the man behind the shield, but I could be wrong. It is possible to make that sort of basic mistake as to identities and ownership: I know because I did it myself when reviewing "Flesh and the Devil", despite loving the film (long since corrected!)...
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
Importing old blog entries...

For my latest bout of research I decided to look into those two mysterious 1927 film credits on Sonnie Hale's record, "On With the Dance" and "The Parting of the Ways".

I still haven't been able to confirm the existence of "Parting of the Ways" (although the IMDB gives some pretty specific details whih suggest that someone, somewhere, has access to records about it), but I can definitely confirm that "On With the Dance" exists -- and Sonnie was almost certainly in it!

From Bioscope's list of new releases, July 1927:

"On With the Dance" Series
Offered by: Pioneer
Directed by: Harry B. Parkinson
Length: series of twelve, 600 feet each.
Release Date: First week in October (approx)
Type: Interest
Cast: Binnie Hale, Sonnie Hale, Laddie Cliff, Phyllis Monkman, Leslie Henson, Madge Elliott, Cyril Ritchard, Bobby Howes, Sid Tracey, Bessie Hay, Leslie Hatton, Devina and Charles, The Tiller Girls, Annie Croft, etc.
IN BRIEF: Dances by well-known stage stars. Some good slow-motion pictures.
Suitability: Excellent short reel subjects for all houses.

An earlier article ("Pioneer Film Agency announce that they are nearing completion of their 'On With the Dance' Series...") again proclaims that the films "will feature such well-known favourites as Binnie Hale, Sonnie Hale..." So Binnie and Sonnie were not only in the series, they are repeatedly ranked as the top attraction!

Kinematograph Weekly runs an entire half-page article on "On With the Dance" on July 28th 1927 ("Something New in Dance Films"), which likewise refers to "such household names from West End theatre and cabaret as Binnie Hale, Sonnie Hale" etc., although in this case it gives a full list including such faces as Billy Leonard and Claude Hulbert. Even more excitingly, it publishes a set of eight stills underneath the article: not specifically captioned, unfortunately (the group caption mentions only four named couples, plus the Tiller Girls). But the top right-hand couple, with the man supporting his partner in a lift, looks distinctly like Sonnie and Binnie Hale.

So much for my deep scepticism as to whether this pairing (pace Gwynplaine Macintyre) ever worked together on stage: it looks as if they actually did do a demonstration dance for the benefit of Pioneer Films' cameras. What's more, at least two of these short films survive in the National Film Archive (and at least one of them was apparently screened at the National Film Theatre in 1995), so the record may even still be viewable today....
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
Today was the start of the British Film Institute's much-advertised 'Weekender'; my chief interest in it was that it offered a chance for me to take a guest to see The Rat, which I had enjoyed so much when it was shown as part of a special evening in 2004 and never expected to see on the big screen again.

We were promised all sorts of extravagant entertainments — live musicians synchronised with those on screen, burlesque dancers at appropriate moments — but in fact all that happened was that they put up the auditorium lights during the nightclub scene and people gradually noticed some ladies in shiny costumes appearing in the aisles and walking across in front of the screen. The second time, they didn't raise the lights (which was less distracting) but then you really couldn't see the dancers at all. It was a good idea but it didn't come off in performance; I suspect the practicalities hadn't all been thought through. A pity for the girls who were supposed to have been the highlight of the show...

But the film, although playing to a youthful audience who had been promised decadence and burlesque, survived the entire experience triumphantly. For the first few minutes the audience sniggered at just about everything shown on screen. Intertitles? — intrinisically hilarious. Ladies in 1920s fashions? — oh, so screamingly old-fashioned! But "The Rat" is a fast-moving piece of low-brow entertainment, designed to thrill, amuse, and hook 'em in... and within about five minutes, the audience had apparently stopped laughing at the film and started laughing with it... save for when they were waiting in breathtaken silence to find out what would happen next....

Response afterwards, in wondering tones: "But Ivor Novello could act!"

He can indeed act, and infinitely better here than in Hitchcock's notorious The Lodger. Novello's sense of mischief as the irrepressible Rat seems to be rather better developed than his attempts to appear sinister and darkly significant for Hitchcock, and his desperation and heartbreak at the end of this film are far more effective than his saintly crucifixion pose in the later production — possibly another case of the Novello curse, whereby he only seemed to be able to achieve stage success in scripts that he'd penned himself!

By the end of the film I was actually starting to wonder if I'd got completely the wrong end of the stick on my previous viewing, and interpreted a tragic ending as a happy one or vice versa — and I knew roughly what was going to happen. The tension was terrific, and a couple of scenes brought tears to my eyes again.

After the disappointment that followed taking a guest to see The Crimson Pirate (I didn't know anyone existed who wouldn't enjoy at least the acrobatics on display...) I was very much relieved that this piece of unashamed melodrama went down so well, from sweet little Odile to the swaggering Rat and beautiful, bored Zélie de Chaumet. It's a film with no pretensions to sophistication — shop-girl stuff — and tremendous fun.
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
found the London Bird’s Eye View festival (of films by female comics/directors/scriptwriters with female musical accompaniment) rather disappointing, I’m afraid. I don’t know how much if that was my rather jaundiced emotional state at the time, how much due to the fact that I don’t really get on with screwball comedy, and how much down to the inexperience of the female accompanists; poor Mary Pickford probably fared the worst, having her polished but somewhat formulaic late comedy "My Best Girl" severely sabotaged by a mosquito-buzz/droning accompaniment from a modernistic string group. It might have worked for an expressionistic tragedy, but entertaining it was not.

But then to be honest I wasn’t terribly impressed by the two piano accompaniments from an experienced female silent film player; they were competent, she clearly knew what she was doing, but didn’t strike on my part any spark. And the films didn’t catch light either: "Show People" is doubtless much funnier if you know more about the Hollywood characters of the era (I didn’t recognise anybody but Douglas Fairbanks in that apparently-famous pan across the acting talent at the high table — and only identified him by the tan!), and while "The Love Expert" is technically very accomplished for its era, I found the heroine positively annoying. (To be honest I was mainly interested in the first place in the Keaton family connection: so this is the sort of thing Connie was up to while Arbuckle and his young assistant were busy making too much noise in their shared studios, back in New York; and this is Natalie in one of her few screen roles supporting her sister. Poor Natalie. She really isn’t as talented or as attractive as her little sister, is she..?)

The night I probably enjoyed the most was the performance featuring Gloria Swanson in "The Danger Girl", an incoherent madcap Sennett comedy, and Ossi Oswalda in the early Lubitsch film "Ich mochte kein Mann sein". Neither of the films is especially polished, but it was the musical accompaniment that made them both memorable and funny; in other circumstances they might well have been a complete drag, but with sympathetic music they were genuine laughing material. Which makes me wonder about the others.

"The Danger Girl" got a close-harmony accompaniment from a vocal group, partly sung (some of the on-screen text), partly nonsense syllables, and partly oral sound effects, i.e. a speeding car approaching, a galloping horse, etc — and if that sounds bizarre, it was! At least half the laughs of the film were probably provided by the vocalists rather than the somewhat confused onscreen action, and at times they actually helped to clarify what was supposed to be going on; a happy blend of nonsense for a very non-serious film.

The Lubitsch got a more traditional accompaniment from a female jazz pianist, who was presumably accustomed to improvising — I actually enjoyed her approach more than that of the official silent film composer and pianist, although to be fair she didn’t have to provide nearly so much material, since this film is very short (only three reels). Again the film itself is no very great shakes (and certainly far less sophisticated than, say, "My Best Girl" from ten years later) but the total experience was uncomplicated good fun.

One of the cats brought in a mouse from the garden to the kitchen today; I should have been suspicious of his very subdued mew outside the door, but I let him come into the room and of course he shot straight up the stairs to play with the beast in comfort. One biff knocked it down a whole flight, at which point we discovered that it was still alive and tried to pick it up — the mouse, being terrified and no fool, decided that it didn’t want to be attacked by an even larger predator, inflicted a nasty bite and shot under a bookcase and through a hole under some pipes to take up residence under the floor. Where it still is, so far as I know, and will probably remain until it dies of starvation or finds a way back out into the bitter wind. The last one turned up dead months later when the smell became too unpleasant. I do wish the cats would kill their food first and play with it afterwards...
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
Off to the Barbican at London Wall today to see the famous Alfred Hitchcock's famous The Lodger. No London fog in evidence, though; rather, a succession of stormy squalls that brought drenching rain and fierce winds over at intervals.

Unfortunately, the film itself was a bit of a disappointment. The novice Hitchcock is clearly in love with special effects and the manufacture of suspense, but he resorts to devices that are all too obviously manufactured in his endeavour to throw suspicion on the eponymous lodger. It's pretty difficult to poke a fire in such a way as to poise the poker threateningly above the head of the girl on the other side of the table, even if she is bending down to retrieve a lost chess-piece; and it's pretty crude to have your suspect pretend to stab the heroine with a table-knife. And when the murderer is known to have a fixation of blonde girls, it's not exactly subtle to have your suspect talk not about the beauty, but the colour of the heroine's hair — lack of subtlety is the main theme here, culminating in the lodger's 'crucifixion', when a trickle of blood oozes from his mouth in what is doubtless intended to be a deeply significant shot. The story is a potentially good one, but the execution is too often ham-handed... not aided, I'm afraid, by some poor acting.

It does annoy me when people dismiss bad acting in silents with airy phrases such as 'you had to overact to get the story across without dialogue' and 'that style of acting was normal in those days'; any decent silent-era actor can get his message across just by the way he moves and reacts without making eyes at the camera or gesturing around, and wooden acting is wooden acting in any era. Top silent actors were often better than talkie actors because they didn't have the crutch of dialogue to distract from awkward body language; if it looked unnatural, everyone would notice.

Ivor Novello had no pretensions to be a great screen actor — he was originally selected for film roles simply on the grounds of his striking good looks, and cheerfully admitted it — but this is far from being his best performance. He gives every indication of reacting to off-screen directions as to what expression to pull next, rather than communicating clearly with the audience; some scenes are far more successful than others. Malcolm Keen in the role of his rival Joe, the detective, is little better, and the mysterious "June" (perhaps a contemporary society celebrity with whom the audience was expected to be on first-name terms?) acts them both off the screen, as do the character actors who play her parents.

The film has good moments, generally when a touch of humour is allowed to break up the would-be intensity or when the actors relax enough to give more natural performances, but it left me feeling nakedly manipulated. There are flashes of talent, but all concerned are trying too obviously and too hard; I'm not sure I could honestly recommend it, save for curiosity's sake.

igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
It's been rather a damp few days overall, one way and another...

No sooner had it finally finished raining than the larder flooded; with hindsight, I imagine that the pipework above the shelf had probably been leaking for some time, but it wasn't until water started dripping down into the fruit rack that it got noticed. The entire shelf (which had to be sawn out of its supports in order to reach the piping) was sodden and slimy with mould, and is now reposing in its component planks outside the back steps waiting for somebody to scrub it down with a hard brush...

The plumber was somewhat taken aback by our highly esoteric pipes. Apparently, we have lead, copper and steel (rusting of the latter having caused the problem) pipework of all different diameters running along the same wall; just to add to the confusion, thanks to modern engineering we have now acquired some 'metric copper' to add to the mix. Naturally, the joints between all these mutually incompatible systems are completely botched together in a perfect plumber's nightmare! I imagine it's a complete cross-section of waterwork through the ages since mains water was first fitted...

At any rate, the flood has been quelled for the moment, although the rest of the steel pipes are in an almost equally parlous condition, especially where they run out through the wall. I wonder whoever thought that using ferrous metal for water-pipes was a good idea? Possibly the same person who thought that cast-iron was a suitable material for our gutters...

The floor is all soaked, of course, and will have to dry out; a long business at this time of the year. Stacks of stored food have been evacuated all over the place, to various unused locations — thanks to the winter, it is fortunately not too much of a problem, as almost all the rooms are fairly cold this time of year. We are starting to run out of floor space, though... and all the jams that used to live on that specific shelf now have illegible labels!

Meanwhile the days are ticking on towards December, and it's time to think of the store-cupboard. Today was dominated by Christmas cake and puddings, occupying all cooking facilities to the extent that we were forced to dine on grilled sausages and chutney... plus some small beetroot that hitched a lift in the boiling water around the pudding-basins. My own idea, though I say it myself, and one that considerably livened up the meal. After all, when one has so much boiling water on the go for so many hours, why not make use of it for other purposes?

I don't remember ever having so much trouble with kitchens steaming up before. Condensation on the windows is one thing, but today — as the puddings boiled on and on for hours and hours — it got to the stage where drips were falling from the ceiling, and the washing hanging from the airer was getting wetter rather than drier. We ended up with all doors and windows flung open to the outside air in sheer self-defence to try to ease off the temperature gradient. Incredibly, it was still 60F indoors... but the windows cleared up and the walls were no longer running with water, which was the aim of the exercise.

All over now, thank goodness, at least for another year... or until it's time to boil the puddings again for eating!

I watched the latest programme on the "Paul Merton's Silent Clowns" series, which was about Laurel & Hardy (as opposed to the Buster Keaton one during the Bonfire Night party). It was actually very interesting from my point of view, as it was mostly about the challenges of creating music for silent films; something that has always fascinated me. I did get the impression that there wasn't nearly so much about the comedians themselves, or rather about their work — most of the clips being shown, with the exception of the infamous demolition scene in "Big Business" were illustrating the principles of accompaniment (I found the brief, uncredited, clips of what appeared to be accompanists as depicted in contemporary films fascinating), and the programme finished off, perhaps inevitably, with a screening of the completed product: the film whose scoring had been being discussed throughout much of the rest of the broadcast. I did miss the first ten minutes, and presumably these were used to cover the duo's artistic history — but what I saw at times felt as much like a programme about the work of Neil Brand as about Laurel & Hardy.

I can't help wondering if this was due to the comparative lack of silent material in their career, since the teaming didn't really take place until 1927, and their 'talkies' are at least as numerous and well known... or due to a comparative lack of sophistication giving little scope for analysis. I know that it's snide of me, and I know that my Keaton-loyalties are probably clouding my judgement (when I was a child I absolutely adored Laurel & Hardy at the annual film shows, long before I ever even heard of Buster Keaton), but when the presenter sums up the quintessential L&H technique as being one of escalating chaos and the use of crowds 'as props' — the demolition derby, the giant bun-fight, and in this case a climax consisting of mass trouser-tearing-off — I can't help comparing it to Keaton's brand of basically intelligence-based, elegant misdirection comedy and thinking "Is this it? Is this all there is?" I mean, we're talking about the proverbial audience-of-twelve-year-olds appeal here: people for whom the biggest laugh in the world is a French horn getting run over by a steamroller and called 'flat', or as many men as possible getting hit in the face by a custard pie. If anyone was going to thrive and go from strength to strength in the talkie sophistication of the 1930s, who would have thought it would have been the comedians dealing in basic slapstick?

But as Merton points out, a comedy duo have a built-in advantage when it comes to dealing in dialogue — it's natural and indeed expected for them to talk to each other. Meanwhile, Keaton's humour was so very much 'silent' — so visual and full of movement — that perhaps it was at a basic disadvantage, like all very highly-adapted organisms, when it came to thriving in a very different environment. After all, Keaton's reaction to the potential of dialogue in film comedy (which as a technical innovator, he was all in favour of) was that you could use it to set up the gags in a more natural-seeming way... then get your actual laugh in the 'normal' fashion. Verbal jokes didn't come into his vision at all.

It was interesting to note that in fact, in the extract from "The Music Box" (1932) shown, Stan and Ollie were proceeding along just those lines: the humour in the set-up was entirely visual, and the dialogue was almost entirely unrelated to the laughs. The scene shown, as Ollie backs into a pond up a final flight of shallow steps, could have been used in a silent film with the addition of maybe one title card (which, in a true silent could probably have been avoided)... but then, as this is reputedly a remake of an earlier short, "Hats Off", perhaps it was...

Given the emphasis on composing and musical accompaniment in the earlier part of this broadcast, it is unfortunate that I felt that the ultimate screening of "You're Darn Tootin'" suffered from its soundtrack. I haven't got on that well in the past with Neil Brand's silent-film orchestrations — which is a pity, because I greatly enjoy and admire his improvisation work at the piano — but in this case I felt that there had simply been a wrong choice made based on the visual material. The film centres around the musical efforts of two hack musicians, and naturally the relevant instruments have to be shown playing when the characters play on screen. This element is all beautifully synchronised; the problem comes in the (increasingly lengthy) moments when no-one on screen is playing. Brand has made the decision to depict this by silence on the soundtrack, and I just don't think it works. A lot of the laughs in the early scenes occur during just such crises, when people aren't playing when they should be, and it feels completely unnatural to have long sections of complete silence during moments when the 'mood' (provided in a silent film by the accompaniment) is supposed to be moving forward.

When the sound-track comes to a total halt in a normal accompaniment, it is usually in response to a terrible shock or tense anticipation on the screen — it's a very powerful tool when used very sparingly. Using it in a laboriously literal interpretation of when Stan and Ollie are seen to play and when they are seen to stop feels completely inappropriate, especially when it lasts more than half a second or so and we see the band leader pick up his baton and storm over... all in complete silence, rather than the underlying emotional cues we'd normally be getting. These scenes need a background accompaniment under the actual on-screen playing: by all means let us hear it start and stop, but don't start and stop everything else in synchronisation as well. In this context it just doesn't make musical sense.

To be fair, I didn't much care for the film itself, as may have been apparent from my earlier comments. It's all right... but I didn't find it terribly funny. This is slapstick stuff, with people (or music-stands) falling over, tumbling down manholes and hitting each other, and culminates in one of Laurel's favourite 'descent into mayhem'-style set-ups, as passers-by get involved in one of Stan and Ollie's quarrels and the whole screen fills with men punching each other in the stomach, stamping on each other's toes, and debagging one another on a grand scale. Either you love this sort of thing or you don't, and I don't, really — I infinitely prefer Keaton's Heath-Robinson humour.

I did enjoy the surprise ending, though.

igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
I was seriously debating yesterday whether or not to go to see "Laughing Anne" at the National Film Theatre in place of attending the (belated) Guy Fawkes party tonight. I'd got to the extent of looking the film up on the IMDb to check whether the omens were hopeful (they weren't; the film's average score was very low) and still dithering, when out of the blue I came upon a Usenet posting announcing that the BBC would be showing the Buster Keaton programme from Paul Merton's Silent Clowns series in prime time on mainstream TV that night.

My mind cleared instantly. Keaton or Conrad? Given that choice, my priorities turned out to be absolutely unquestioning: Keaton without a qualm, every single time. Considering the amount of time I'd spent dithering, it was almost funny.

The really silly thing is that I'd actually already seen the TV programme in question at a special sneak preview session before its original BBC4 transmission and it doesn't in any case tell me anything I don't already know, or show any footage I haven't already encountered. I just can't resist Buster Keaton under any circumstances; I suppose that's what they call addiction, although it feels more like religion...

A contributory factor was that the Conrad on Film season has been somewhat mixed to date, at least from my point of view. I'd already narrowed my planned viewing down to a handful of the pictures on offer, for one reason or another (my main interest is in the early film era itself, rather than in Conrad's work), and "Laughing Anne" had been one of the few survivors. (I was interested to see what Herbert Wilcox plus Margaret Lockwood would produce, and the plotline sounded my style.)

So far I've seen two of the three "Victory" adaptations in the season — the silent and very early sound versions — and the silent "Lord Jim".

The "Victories" were both pretty mediocre, verging on bad. The plum part in that plot seems to be the villain Ricardo, who comes across as the most lively and amusing character: the main reason why I watched the silent version was to see the famous Lon Chaney in the part, and he doesn't disappoint. Alas, that is more than can be said for Richard Arlen, the reason why I watched the sound version; he was terribly wooden in the leading man role of Axel Heyst. And after he'd been so good as a silent actor in "The Four Feathers" and "Beggars of Life", too. After watching this film, I frankly assumed that his career must have fallen casualty to the coming of sound — since although he has a perfectly good voice here, he seems unable to act with it — and was quite surprised to find that he went on getting parts for many years afterwards; maybe he was just having a bad day here. It's not a rewarding character to play.

The 1925 "Lord Jim", on the other hand, was unexpectedly excellent. Enough to make me go and read the book, which I was not at all tempted to do after watching a double-bill of "Victories"!

It has to be said that this film gets better as it goes along. There's nothing wrong as such with the beginning, but it's a bit pedestrian somehow. But comparing it with the original novel, I found it all in all a very good adaptation, and generally a better piece of storytelling than Conrad's long framing passages and non-chronological plotline allow: I'm not clear if the author was trying to rack up suspense, indulge in philosophical exploration or simply to be clever, but I actually felt that the film — with the benefit of almost no words at all, being silent — got to the heart of the character much more accurately and clearly than the book had. And as a piece of compression it's actually very clever.

The most significant example is the combining of the two villainous captains into the same character, thus adding extra personal impact on Jim when he encounters the pirates in addition to shortening the cast list and cutting back on exposition; but the depiction of Jim's wanderings after his disgrace is very well done by piecing together various separate incidents mentioned in Conrad's meandering account of that era, and making them into a coherent chain driving the hero back to seek help from the sympathetic merchant (again, a conflation of several characters making passing appearances in the book). The trial scene is also conveyed with remarkable skill, given the constraints posed by title cards and the imperative not to have too many of them.

But basically I strongly suspect that I liked it much better because I could identify with the central character in the plot. My masochistic streak coming out again, I suppose — but expiation, honour and heroic self-sacrifice were always my thing. In the end scene, where I have a feeling we are supposed to be willing Jim to yield to Jewel's pleas and escape fulfilling his word to his benefactor, I was sitting there thinking 'isn't that just like a woman? She simply doesn't understand, does she? Don't listen to her...'

And of course he doesn't.

My only complaint about this scene would be that they really shouldn't have staged it so that a dying man has to stagger back across a long bridge; Jewel should have run to meet him, for plausibility's sake...

A big grumble, though, goes to the elderly (and possibly deaf, if you take the charitable view) American couple who were seated towards the front of the auditorium, and persisted in supplying a running commentary to each other, in addition to crinkling sweet papers and sucking and slurping loudly. The last straw was when they started ad-libbing dialogue at one of the most intense moments: I'm sure they were thoroughly enjoying the film, and it was all relevant chatter, but they didn't half put me off. I'd like to claim that I took no action in order to avoid disturbing the rest of the audience, but actually I was too inhibited to do more than sit there seething as they exchanged comments almost in my ear. In any case they took absolutely no notice when I did try.


igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
I spent most of today up in London; got up before dawn to make it to Hyde Park in time to see the start of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, a plan slightly sabotaged by the fact that the Victoria Line turned out to be closed for the weekend! But I got there in time to see most of the cars leaving the gates and setting off around Hyde Park Corner. Two or three turned the wrong way and had to be set right by spectators, which did leave me wondering how many cars simply get lost along the way...

It was a beautiful day for it — too beautiful, really, as people were having to motor straight into the low sun — and I got an excellent position balancing on top of a seat so that I could see over the wall on the other side of the road; I'm not sure I've ever had such a good view of the entrants before. It was fascinating just listening to the different engine notes of the various vehicles as they passed (and spotting the steam-powered cars by their almost total silence!) It never ceases to amaze me that the one-cylinder engines can work at all: they are easily identifiable by the extreme slowness of the exhaust beat, as the single cylinder gives a great shove, then frantically winds round for another go while hoping that the flywheel will maintain some kind of momentum in the interval. Incredibly, in practice it works.

Most entries seemed to be carrying a fair complement of passengers (discounting the charabanc which made an appearance among the veteran cars with a full load of merrymakers, but almost certainly wasn't old enough to qualify!), but a few brave souls set out without any assistants to help in case of breakdown, emergency, or just the need for a push-start. Inevitably, there were a few 'casualties' among the hundred-year-old vehicles before or during the start, with a few sad victims being carried away by trailer, having failed to start, acquired a puncture, or broken down within the first few yards. But only a few.

Otherwise, a great time was being had by all, including the multi-national crowd of spectators: the family on one side of me were speaking German and on the other side, Italian... The 'normal' Traffic inevitably built up as time went on, and tthe road became more congested; but I was amused to note that the veteran cars were apparently not required to stop at the first set of lights, presumably in case their brakes proved insufficient and/or they proved unable to start again.

And later on this afternoon I went to the Barbican to see their screening of the silent film Underworld; I'd seen it before at the National Film Theatre in July 2004, and enjoyed it so much that I came back for a second viewing at Barbican prices. The film didn't disappoint.

This is an example of silent film-making at its height, in the era 1927-8 just before it was ended for ever, and a talented director and cast could produce a story of unbelievable subtlety and delicacy without a word's being spoken. Clive Brook is just incredible in this; he's not handsome, he's not youthful, he's not 'sexy', but he creates a character whose intelligence and integrity simply shine, and he's one brilliant actor. You can see everything he's thinking just from the way he looks and moves; from the slightest shade of intention or irresolution on his face, or from the way he sets down a glass or picks up a broom. And his co-stars Evelyn Brent (who is gorgeous) and George Bancroft equal his screen presence. The whole film is tightly focused on the shifting relationship between these three, to the extent that others only appear fleetingly on screen; and never once do they let it drop, and turn in a wooden scene or a hammy reaction.

And the camera work is both starkly shadowed and impressionistic, and inventive. A wild party takes place in an accelerating montage of flashing faces; a bully looms towards the screen and punches the camera 'in the gut', as the subjective view reels upwards in response. Intertitles brim with sharp one-liners, or pared-down, effective understatement of emotion. It's technically accomplished, psychologically acute, and a heart-twisting roller-coaster of loyalties and affections.

This film should be a classic and widely shown; the fact that it's played twice in London within three years suggests that it's no rarity, but apparently not so. It survives only in print from a battered 16mm source, and no high-prestige 'restoration' and consequent home video release has ever taken place. See it on the big screen if you can; if you can't, you'll never see it anywhere else...


igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
Igenlode Wordsmith

September 2017

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